It is fair to say that time-keeping is not a strong point at the church where I work. Our main Sunday service starts at 9.45. At 9.43, approximately half the congregation will be there, some of them even sitting down. By 9.50, most have arrived. A steady trickle will continue until at least the sermon, with the odd one or two continuing to come in at random intervals throughout. Some will arrive just in time for coffee afterwards.
Me. I’m obsessively punctual. I hate being late, and will go to great lengths to avoid it. And to be perfectly honest, it drives me up the wall when other people are late. So how do I feel about the time-keeping at All Saints? Actually, it doesn’t bother me at all. It has done, but it doesn’t now, because I’ve come to see it as part of how we welcome people as they are.
To take a not-unusual example from the other Sunday, I was chatting after the service to a mum of two children, who told me about the awful week she’d been having. It had clearly been one thing after the other, culminating in the realisation that various factors involving changed timings of a rugby practice for one child, an unexpected dance workshop for another, and a husband on nightshifts, meant there was no way she’d be able to get to church on time. “I nearly didn’t come,” she said, “and then I thought loads of other people come in late, no-one’s going to mind. So I came. I missed the sermon, but I got here in time for communion. I’m glad I came, I really needed it today.”
Here is an example of exactly the sort of person who most needs us, the church, on a Sunday morning. Busy, stressed, snatching time between family commitments, but desperately wanting the comfort of belonging, community, communion, drawing near to God to be refreshed and renewed, ready for the next long slog of a week. And if we were the sort of church where people turn and stare and tut when you come in late, she wouldn’t have come. It’s as simple as that.
So no, I don’t mind when people wander in half way through the sermon. I don’t mind when they take their children to the toilet in the middle of the prayers (after a loud “but Mummy, I need a poo NOW”), or when a toddler is laughing or yelling, or when the two old ladies behind me carry on with their conversation throughout the Eucharistic prayer. Because that’s part of who we are. It’s part of being a family, God’s family, as we gather at his table.
It’s part of how we welcome people. Jesus doesn’t wait for people to be sitting in neat rows and listening quietly before he welcomes them. God says “come as you are”, and so should we.
But we’re so far off from that, aren’t we? So far from accepting and welcoming people however they are, whoever they are. We might be ok with a yelling toddler, but what about a drunk adult shouting the odds? A couple of old ladies talking, fine. But what about someone talking to voices only they can hear?
Mental illness, addiction, disability, family breakdown, challenging behaviour, poverty, a dozen other things that make up what professionals politely refer to as “chaotic lives”. Are we really ready to say “come as you are”? Or do we mean “come as you are, as long as it’s not too disruptive to how we do things”?
If we believe in a God who loves unconditionally, extravagantly, outrageously, and if we believe Christ calls us, as the church, to be his body in the world, how can we place limits on that love? How can we say “we love you if…” “we welcome you unless…” Those are things we’ll never hear God say. And if we the church say them, in our words or actions, rolled eyes or tutting, disapproving glances or avoided eye-contact, we place limits on that love which are nothing to do with God at all.